Nina Hoss rose to international prominence in a series of films by German director Christian Petzold, delivering intense turns in cerebral dramas such as Barbara and Phoenix. Now she stars in a powerhouse performance in My Little Sister as a Berlin playwright desperate to find the best care for her twin brother (Lars Eidinger) as he slowly succumbs to terminal cancer.
The second fiction film by documentary makers Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond, Switzerland’s entry for the Oscar’s Best International Feature category is gently moving, unsentimental, and thankfully lacking in the melodramatic trappings of conventional weepies about crippling illness. Other than a paragliding scene that soars above the Swiss Alps, it’s a down-to-earth tale of the near-symbiotic bond between siblings, and what might happen if one half of that relationship vanishes forever.
The film is anchored two strong turns that curiously blend fact and fiction by Hoss and Eidinger, who’ve known each other since studying together at acting school, alongside Thomas Ostermaier, who also appears as a theatre director in what’s essentially a version of himself.
Joining via video link from Berlin as temperatures in the German capital plunged toward 10°F, Hoss spoke to The Film Stage about the importance of the communal cinema experience, how Netflix leaves films on the “last shelf,” and being critiqued on her appearance in light of Carey Mulligan’s responses to reviews of Promising Young Woman.
The Film Stage: It’s a strange time to open a film about the closeness of family ties. What’s it been like to launch the movie at a time of social distancing and lockdowns?
Nina Hoss: It’s hard, harder on the directors because they’ve worked on it for six years. The exchange with an audience is what we did this for! I know [directors] Stéphanie and Véronique made a tour throughout Switzerland, with masks and everything. They went, I think, for two weeks from town to town, and had this experience of meeting people. And that was great. We had an opening in Berlin [in October] and then, I think, had four more days and then there was the lockdown.
The film premiered just under the wire at the Berlin Film Festival last February, before Covid-19 closed cinemas worldwide. That feels like a different era…
The opening night couldn’t have been more beautiful than the one at the Berlinale, because it was so warmly received and was such a wonderful, wonderful evening. That’s the thing. You feel if people like it or not. If a film comes out just virtually you’ll never know. So the Berlinale was fantastic and very important for us.
Do you think this kind of film––or foreign language movies in general––can find an audience on streaming services like Netflix?
You know, [Netflix] is more like a big, big video shop. But your film might end up in the last shelf, behind other films, so no one ever knows that you’re there. So it’s not really curated, I would say. It’s always what’s new. For a moment you’re there, but then you’re gone.
You’ve seen it with the Oscars. Ninety-three new great films out there this year [in the International Film category], so it’s very hard to get your story to the forefront. And that’s why the cinema release is so important. Because also we the filmmakers are there at the launch and we talk to journalists, and we can discuss something further than just the story.
You’ve known the main cast––Lars Eidinger and Thomas Ostermaier––since drama school. What was it like rekindling on screen?
Lars and Thomas have worked together ever since acting school. I made a little detour, I was at the Deutsches Theater, the Berliner Ensemble, I was onstage in Zürich for a while. But Thomas and I were always in contact. But at the time, back in the days, Thomas [as director at Berlin’s Schaubühne] had this regimen that no actor can shoot a movie because their concentration has to be on the ensemble, which made total sense to me.
And Lars… even at the acting school, I had the feeling I am like his sister a little bit. I have to take care of him. I always held Lars can make himself vulnerable. I don’t have to take care of him any more––he’s doing very well on his own!
We have a friendship where we don’t see each other much. But the moment we see each other, it’s like we’ve never been apart. And that helps so much. For the two characters––these twins––we just feel each other. And that’s why I think we didn’t really have to work on being a symbiotic couple, in a way. So it helped a lot.
Your character, Lisa, spends the film caring for her brother as cancer consumes his life. Did that friendship with Lars in real life make the acting process more intense?
And I think it helped me to feel the pain, the struggle, but also the will to help him first and foremost. It helped me so that I that I could feel what if you lose this person. What also helped me a lot was to see Stéphanie and Véronique. Because they are symbiotic. And they are creative together. And one would always think, “what if the other one is gone?” Can the other continue? Or not?
Lisa is a character who thinks she’s in control for most of the movie, but her brother’s illness is something she can’t change and she doesn’t know how to cope. I love that moment when you’re offered a coffee, and that simple act makes you break down in tears.
For me the scene tells something about the moments when you know you have no other option than to function. Lisa has to be there for [her brother]. But nevertheless, you’re only human, and you only have so much strength. And so, in the most unexpected moment a stranger is kind to her. That’s what’s throws her. And that’s life for me. It’s never interesting if a breakdown happens in the moments where everyone expects you to breakdown, that’s not how it is.
The Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern described you in his review as: “her beauty, like the gravity of her demeanor, is deepening as she ages.” How do you react to comments about your appearance in reviews?
Well, it is a difficult thing, isn’t it? I try to really not be too sensitive. But those kinds of comments about an appearance of an actress––not so much this one, I didn’t really feel offended or anything like that––make it tricky for us actresses to just be treated just the same [as men]. I don’t know if a line like that would be written about a man. Like, “His handsomeness is slowly withering.” I’ve never read anything like that.
Because I can’t deny that I’m aging. And that’s fine. I am able to tell other women’s stories at my age. And I’m very much looking forward to that! And I hope very much that these stories seem to be interesting for the people who provide the money for films.
But it doesn’t matter, you age. And if we all would feel it’s normal, it’s embraced, it’s then that’s beautiful. Because I also don’t want to pretend I’m 20! I enjoy being in my 40s, it’s a very rich decade!
If only the surface counts, then you get scared. And that’s what happens when people do all sorts of things to their face. When you try to stay young and please everyone who reviews you.
Do you think it’s fair how Carey Mulligan reacted to comments about her appearance in Promising Young Woman?
And it’s a different case with Carey Mulligan. I’ve seen the film, I love it. And that [Variety critic is] not clever enough to see that the film talks about why it doesn’t matter how a woman looks. That’s what’s going to happen to her. If you’re not clever enough to get that point, it speaks against you.
It’s been seven years since you worked with Christian Petzold in Phoenix––the last of your six collaborations. Do you plan to team up again?
Not for now, I don’t think. We email from time to time, and you never know what’s going to happen. Right now I’m going to be part of a big American series that takes me away for six months––I can’t tell you the name!––which is something I’m really looking forward to. It’s a great part and something to dig into.
My Little Sister is now available in Virtual Cinemas.